Debate: Kanhaiya as a Symbol of Much-Needed Alternative Politics

It will augur well for India’s secular democracy if Begusarai trumps the divisive politics of both Hindus and Muslims, and makes itself a model for the country.

“Ensuring victory of the Muslim candidate from Begusarai is a question of the very existence (wajud) of Muslims,” said a bright, promising Muslim student of mass communication on some WhatsApp groups. Is this view an exception? Or has it been internalised by a significant segment of educated young Muslims?

Social media seems to suggest the latter.

If Muslims prefer only the RJD-led mahagathbandhan, why should the candidate’s Muslim-ness be insisted? Some even threatened to withdraw their support to Kanhaiya because Jignesh Mevani, after campaigning for Kanhaiya, went on to campaign for the CPI-ML candidate in Siwan, who is pitted against RJD’s Muslim nominee, Hina Shahab – wife of the gangster-legislator Shahabuddin (convicted for murders).

This was even more bizarre. Why should a gangster not be identified only as a gangster? Why should some Muslims own a gangster as their own and thereby vilify Muslims as a whole?

They evade all such queries.

There are other Muslims who argue that the Left is worse in terms of conceding a fair share to Muslims in the structures and processes of power. They rightly refer to Sachar Report about West Bengal and the treatment dealt out to Muslims by the Left Front regime.

Also read | Debate: Being ‘Liberal’ Means Asking Muslims to Spoil Their Best Chance in Begusarai

There is also an argument about why a Bhumihar, Kanhaiya Kumar, should be preferred by the mahagathbandhan at the cost of a Muslim? This argument forgets two facts: Since 1952, a Bhumihar has almost always elected from there. A Muslim candidate was elected only once, in 2009 – on an NDA ticket.

Intriguingly,sectarian Muslims also choose to forget that Madhubani, Bettiah, Sitamarhi, Darbhanga, Sheohar have relatively more Muslim votes, and some of these have elected Muslims a number of times. Yet the mahagathbandhan gave them away to non-Muslim nominees.

These Muslims prefer not to see any threat to the wajud of Muslims in these seats. They choose to remain oblivious of one possibility: what if all Hindus united to elect only Hindus?

While insisting on adequate Muslim representation, most of them have chosen to ignore the even larger under-representation of the AjlafArzal Muslim communities.

In fact, when the RJD’s Muslim candidate was first declared, and the CPI left out of the alliance, the same budding Muslim journalist quoted at the start of this piece had wished – in his Facebook post – for Kanhaiya to contest. Kanhaiya would cut into the Bhumihar votes of BJP’s notorious motor-mouth, Giriraj Singh. This, according to the student, would ensure the victory of RJD’s Muslim nominee.

But the moment he and his ilk realised Kanhaiya would also get Muslim votes, their desperation became evident. They unleashed tirades on social media against all those “lesser” Muslims who were planning to support Kanhaiya.

The issue is that India responded to these pressing problems with identity-based chauvinistic politics. Thus, even a nominal representation of such an identity is taken as a substance of empowerment.

This is an era of cynicism. Unlike the 1960s and 1970s, the youth has no role models for emancipatory politics, capable of leading aggressive street agitations on concrete issues of livelihood and civil liberties. The Left has fallen by the wayside, except for the revolutionary Left in parts of Bihar. That residual Left presence in Indian politics is absolutely necessary, just like salt in food – its deficit and overdose, both take away the taste of the food, in the words of sociologist Anand Kumar.

In such a scenario, Kanhaiya, hailing from a poor peasant but an upper-caste Hindu family of rural Begusarai, emerged on the scene.

He was a student-activist of JNU, victimised by the jingoistic and repressive regime. He defied it with courage. He sort of helped re-discover the student and youth politics of resistance in the era of corporate controlled regimes. It resonated with them and it appeared to cut across caste, religion and gender.

Prior to Kanhaiya, other Left student activists of JNU were, in my view, of greater intellect, vision and oratory. Chandrashekhar was far ahead of Kanhaiya. But Chandu was snuffed out, allegedly by the shooters of Shahabuddin in Siwan in March 1997. Compared to those worthies, Kanhaiya’s significance lies in rising to the occasion when resistance seemed hopeless.

Also read: Kanhaiya Kumar’s Victory Will be the Victory of the ‘Big Indian Dream’

Sections of Muslim youth also look upon him like that. In comparison, the credentials of the Muslim candidate of RJD are poor. He was silent on the lynching and custodial deaths of Muslims. Despite having been a legislator in the state’s upper house, his contribution has been negligible. If he really does, his supporters have not been able to articulate and propagate. But sectarian Muslims are irked when their own co-religionists defy identity-based electoral preferences.

The right-wing politics – of harping on identity, not allowing people to raise concrete issues, and not allowing voters to ask about their legislators’s performances – is becoming entrenched among the mobilised castes of both Hindus and Muslims.

Muslim solidarity and support to Kanhaiya is a step toward rediscovering an emancipatory politics, and opposing a divisive identity politics. Kanhaiya may or may not live up to it for long in future – but today, he symbolises that.

Not every seat is as fortunate to have a dependable alternative. But at least Begusarai’s Hindus and Muslims can assert themselves against identity politics and convey that very message.

Identity-insecure Muslims will get an outspoken and vocal, rather than a slavishly silent and unimaginative representative. The choice is theirs. Let ‘Muslim politics’ be re-defined beyond minority-ism. That is a way forward to resist majoritarianism.

It will augur well for India’s secular democracy if Begusarai trumps the divisive politics of both Hindus and Muslims and makes itself an example for Bihar and the country to follow.

Mohammad Sajjad is the author of Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours. He tweets @sajjadhist